Gwen Lister, co-founder of The Namibian, will speak at the joint World Newspaper Congress/World Editors Forum session titled "Winners shaping the future - How some newspaper companies are succeeding and leading the way."
Lister started her career at the Windhoek [Namibia] Advertiser in 1975 and later co-founded the weekly Windhoek Observer. Following numerous run-ins with the authorities because of her hard-hitting political reporting and outspoken criticism of government policies, she led a mass resignation from that paper. In 1985 she co-founded The Namibian; it became a daily a few years later. The paper, started as a donor-funded publication, is now established as a non-profit trust. Lister recently stepped down as Editor and now holds the position of Executive Director on the Board, responsible for new business development, and is also the Chairperson of the Namibia Media Trust, which owns the company.
In 1991 Lister was one of the founding members of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and served two terms as chairperson of the Governing Council, and later Trust Funds Board member. Lister was also a member of the UNESCO Press Freedom Committee and a member of the African advisory board for the International Womens Media Federation. She is currently a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists African Advisory Board attached to the Centre for Public Integrity in the USA. In 1995/96 Lister was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University.
WAN-IFRA: Could you describe your involvement in the issue of press independence in Namibia? What developments in that area have been most satisfying? What remains frustrating?
LISTER: I've been involved in the fight for press freedom in Namibia virtually since I started out as a journalist in apartheid-occupied Namibia in 1976, and when those of us trying to show the truth of what was happening to the black majority in Namibia under South African rule faced all manner of obstacles in trying to do so. This included legal constraints, and a military regime that jailed and harassed reporters in a country where most of the media was then either dominated by SA or sympathetic to the occupiers. So independence in 1990 was preceded by tough times for most independent-minded journalists in the country, of which there were very few. After Namibian independence, I was also actively involved in media freedom issues in the subcontinent, getting together with like-minded media from across the African continent in 1991 at a UNESCO-sponsored conference, which I co-chaired, to help draw up the Windhoek Declaration – which represented a big turning point for African media – and to form the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) which was and is instrumental in advocacy for press freedom, independent press and access to information since its inception.
It was encouraging to note that the fight for press freedom had not been in vain, because when Namibia attained independence, its new constitution provided for a bill of inalienable human rights, including the right to press freedom. Although not everything has been plain sailing since 1990, at least the framework for press freedom is in place. I think the Windhoek Declaration, which had a knock-on effect in other parts of the world as well, was an important moment for media and their freedoms. This in turn paved the way for the adoption of World Press Freedom Day by the UN General Assembly on May 3 each year.
These are two of the major highlights, but frustrations also remain. Issues such as the importance of press freedom as an indispensable pillar of a democracy still need to be written in the hearts and minds of both the governors and the governed! It is one thing to legislate, quite another to practice the freedoms that our Constitution provides for.
Government, while signatory to the Windhoek Declaration via the AU and the SADC community's jnformation protocols, are often reluctant to grant full freedoms, and access to information – facilitated by Freedom of Information Acts – is yet another ideal to fight for in most African countries. Often press freedom is characterised by a one-step-forward, two-back approach, and so much remains to be done also to ensure that the people have access to information in the fullest sense of the world.
Another issue that continues to bother me is the calibre of our journalists. While there are many brave journalists across the continent, there is also a declining standard in many countries, including our own, and this may be partly due to a lack of training, but also a lack of passion and commitment.
WAN-IFRA: Why do you believe newspapers should be non-profit and not involved in business? Is your belief related specifically to the situation in Namibia, in Africa in general, or is it universal?
LISTER: The non-profit issue is something close to my own heart, but not something I would try to enforce on others necessarily, although I do think it leads to more independent journalism in most cases. Media ownership is a critical factor in determining how free or unfree media are, and if the profit motive is held above good independent public interest and investigative journalism, then media will surely be the loser and so too the people who read, listen to or watch it.
I must clarify 'non-profit' in the sense that The Namibian, for example, is owned by a trust, and there are no individual shareholders who dictate profit above all else. We do have to make money to sustain the trust, so in that sense obviously, we want to be profitable, but it is also important that business decisions (such as the increase in a newspaper price) is only done with due recognition of the commitment to wider access to 'affordable' information. I would be happy to elaborate further on this if need be.
WAN-IFRA: How can a newspaper in Africa make best use of digital media?
LISTER: This is one of the areas many media in Africa are currently looking at. The medium I am most familiar with is of course print, and I, like other newspaper journos, am increasingly concerned about what appears to be a decline in readership, particularly in first world countries. Here in Namibia, our sales continue to increase and this may be partly due to the low penetration of access to computers, for example, but we cannot be complacent, and do need to look at innovative ways and means to harness new media, particularly, I think, the mobile phone. At The Namibian, I started, some years back, what we call our 'SMS pages,' where people throughout the country can simply text their concerns to us and we publish them and hope in this way to facilitate communications between people and government, and even vice versa.
WAN-IFRA: On the issue of women working in media, what progress have you seen? What advice do you have for young women who are starting careers in the media industry?
LISTER: I've actively encouraged women throughout my career, and at one point most of the key positions at The Namibian were held by women. In terms of staff complement, we've had slightly more women than men in overall employment at the newspaper, and of late, more and more young women are becoming involved in the 'hard news' side of journalism, which is very encouraging. This has taken quite a long time, and I'm hopeful that, with more female faces in the news, this will continue to go from strength to strength in the future. Overall in media of course, there are concerns, which I share, that women still haven't attained their rightful place in a global sense.
Sometimes cultural concerns make it tough for young women, but I continue to encourage them to persevere, to be role models in our communities and especially always to keep the concerns of the less advantaged in our communities at heart in their reporting.
WAN-IFRA: What was the toughest decision in your career?
LISTER: I think the toughest decision in my career came when I knew it was time to hand over to a new editor. After 35 years in journalism, 26 of them at the helm of The Namibian, I knew the time had come to do so, but in a responsible fashion. In 2011 I advertised and interviewed candidates for the post, and the most outstanding was a young man, Tangeni Amupadhi, whom I then appointed to the job in the capacity as editor-designate. I worked very closely and mentored him into the job over a period of six months, after which I appointed him as Editor. This was critical, because apart from the non-profit aspect of newspapers, I am a firm believer in an editorially-driven newspaper, and so the Editor is the head of the entire operation, responsible to the Board. Many newspapers, I feel, have lost their closeness to their communities when the business arm makes the key decisions.
I am now Executive Director on the Board of Directors, which in turn accounts to the Trust, and I am Chairperson of the Trust. At present we are looking at ways and means of getting the Trust going, and a key area will of course be journalistic training and the drive for excellence. The Trust will obviously also commit itself to promotion of a free and independent press in the wider sense, whether it be in the subcontinent, Africa as a whole, or further afield. I will also share as much as I can, my expertise gained over the years in print media, and will also look at other business opportunities for the Trust, including possibly radio.